With the reopening of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site this season, the life, times and decorative tastes of this early-and-mid-19th-century artist, whose landscapes sparked one of America’s first art movements, will come to life as never before, thanks to the installation of new immersive technology and a historic restoration project that uncovered his original wall painting.
In contrast to the usual “look-don’t-touch” protocol of historic homes, where red-velvet ropes partition off the recreated rooms, visitors at this Catskill attraction are invited to sit down in the East Parlor of Cole’s home. Reproductions of Cole’s letters are scattered on tables and chairs, and visitors are encouraged to pick them up and read them (turn over the copy of the original with the fine, florid handwriting for a legible typewritten version). The blue-cushioned chairs for visitors are dispersed amid the period antiques. The sense that you have walked onto a theatrical set recreating a room from the 1830s is heightened when Cole himself (actually, the voice of acclaimed actor Jamie Bell) speaks, as the lights dim and a portrait of the artist dissolves into a series of closeups of his paintings projected onto seven screens, each hung on the walls and bordered with a frame as if it were a painting.
In a deep-voiced, leisurely cadence, Bell (who starred in the film Billy Elliot) intones, “All nature here is new to art” and recites other excerpts from Cole’s letters, journals and essays. The voice praises the mist rising in the valleys and the “fresh green realms” that have given him a respite from “the noise and bustle of the city.” He expresses dismay at the cutting down of the trees in the surrounding valley and hillsides, which he can view from his porch. “The wilderness of America,” which affects him so powerfully, “is quickly passing away,” thanks to “the ravages of the axe.”
Bell-as-Cole announces his plans to paint the “illustrated history of natural science” as the projections depict scenes from the five paintings constituting Cole’s famous Course of Empire series. He speaks of his happiness in meeting his wife, Maria, as his sketch of her is projected, and notes that “Green is an excellent color for exhibiting paintings.”
Cole, who was born in Lancashire, England in 1801 and immigrated to America when he was 17, is an eloquent writer; and hearing these words spoken out loud, and so masterfully and mournfully, by Bell (also a native of England) – words that reflect the disturbing changes happening to this place more than 150 years ago – is a little spine-tingling. Today, the view of the forested hills from the porch is more pristine that it was in the 1830s, when the hemlocks were being cut down for the tanning industry. While we can thank the creation of the Catskill Forest Preserve for that, the sense of an unbroken wilderness is of course an illusion, as attested by the proximity of Route 23A and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, which fortunately are out of earshot.
“Thomas Cole is a young visionary in the East Parlor, full of boundless optimism and excitement,” noted Thomas Cole Site executive director Elizabeth B. Jacks. “It’s about his ambition and love. The West Parlor focuses on how he hits reality and deals with his patrons.”
Crossing the spacious, high-ceilinged hallway, brightened by a patterned, colored floor cloth, to the West Parlor, where a bowl of berries is laid out with a fine china tureen and wineglasses on a table, as if to welcome a visiting patron, technology is used for a different purpose: The surface of a desk and tables in three corners displays a series of projections, as if they were actual papers, showing excerpts of Cole’s correspondence with three patrons; the displays are triggered by motion-detection sensors. The exhibits are expertly woven into the historic furnishings – one display is projected from a desktop below shelves of leatherbound books – and even the explanatory text for the room is integrated into the design, printed on a page of a book, displayed on a table by the entrance, rather than on a conventional wall label.
Cole complains in a letter to Jonathan Sturges, who commissioned the artist to paint a view of the valley from this room, how the construction of the railroad has marred the view. “We are truly a destructive people,” Cole writes in an 1836 letter, noting that “the beauty has passed away.” Sturges is empathetic in his reply, though the last projected display notes that the wealthy Sturges helped construct the railroad. In another display, Cole writes to Robert Gilmor, Jr., a merchant and art collector, in 1826 about how “I am no mere leaf painter.” Gilmor had commissioned Cole to illustrate a scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans, and he criticizes the composition of the piece as being “artificial.” The exchange highlights the pressure that Cole was under from his American audience to paint specific scenes taken from the American landscape, as opposed to the imaginary landscapes he preferred to paint, whose compositions and motifs were modeled after European painters Claude Lorrain and Salvadore Rosa and whose purpose was to portray philosophical ideas, linked to history painting.
Besides conjuring up the personal and professional issues that consumed Cole, the two parlors also reveal Cole’s talents and tastes in decorating his home, which was built in 1815 (the couple shared the house, which had belonged to his wife’s family, with their children and a bevy of relatives). Restorers uncovered fragments of decorative painting along the tops of the walls, which were later determined to have been designed and painted by Cole, who before becoming a painter designed wallpapers. Using a type of alcohol, they then removed up to nine layers of paint to expose much of the original borders. In the East Parlor, the faded design of a Greek-key pattern topping a series of swags resembles old French wallpaper, although it was painted and stenciled directly on the plaster wall by Cole. Eventually, the restorers plan to do “in-painting” that would recreate the original vibrancy of the colors, keyed to the aquamarine color of the walls.
“For Cole, each room was an art piece,” said Carrie Feder, who along with Jean Dunbar directed the restoration. She said that the hall floor cloth incorporates a pattern adapted from Pompey, whose ancient Roman motifs were then-popular, and noted that a faded section of carpet from the West Parlor that had been discovered was being used to recreate the entire carpet, which is being manufactured in England.
Reproduction paintings will be hung from the walls of both parlors, to complete the recreation of the rooms during Cole’s lifetime. (He died in 1848, at age 47.) His original paintings and sketches are displayed, along with his top hat, palette, easel and collection of rocks displayed in a glass-topped table, in the room upstairs. Elsewhere on the grounds, his 1839 “Old Studio” (Cole painted in this former stone-sided storehouse for seven years) is set up with his easel, glass containers of powered pigment, his plaster casts from Italy and other painting aids, as if he were about to walk into the room and pick up his brush.
The rebuilt New Studio, which opened last year – he built the original in 1846, which was torn down in 1974 – serves as an exhibition space. (One advantage of building new is that the structure is equipped with temperature controls and other devices that allow the museum to borrow and exhibit works from major museums, which require such technology, said Jacks.) This year’s exhibit is titled “Sanford Gifford in the Catskills” and consists of approximately 20 paintings by the Hudson River artist, plus a couple of his contemporaries, hung on dark-green walls. Guest curator Kevin J. Avery, senior research scholar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, noted that the color complements the orange/yellow/red cast of many of the landscapes.
Gifford, who was born in Hudson in 1823, was a landscape painter of national renown from 1857 to his death in 1880. He frequently visited the Catskills in the summer and fall from his base in New York, besides taking two extended tours of Europe and the Mideast to paint. Cole doubtless influenced Gifford to switch from portraiture to landscapes, according to Avery; the curator noted that some of the studies on display “have the perfection of the major paintings.” Avery wrote the excellent essay in a catalogue accompanying the exhibit.
Dominating the gallery is a 54-inch-wide painting on the far wall of a desolate, dark expanse of undulating mountain range silhouetted against a narrow band of pale-orange sky, which is topped by a band of dark, orange-scarlet clouds. Silhouettes of dead trees frame the scene at either end, and the reflection of pale-orange sky glints from curving waterways far below in the dark valley. Titled Twilight in the Catskills, the painting was described as “darkness visible,” an allusion to John Milton, by a contemporary critic and was painted in 1861, when Gifford, who served in the Union Army, experienced the national trauma of the Civil War as well as the death of one of his brothers. More typical of his work are the luminous sky and soft pastels of the distant, atmospheric mountain, framed by a dark, rugged foreground of a forest clearing, in A Sketch of Hunter Mountain.
A pairing of Mount Merino, a golden pastoral landscape with the yellow-white glow of the low, half-hidden sun (a favorite motif of Gifford’s) reflected in the Hudson River, where a row of cows drink, with Henry Ary’s South Bay and Mount Merino shows how Gifford idealized his scene: He omitted the railroad track over the river, which Ary included. Many of the landscapes are aligned vertically and depict rugged crags and ledges, whose scale is frequently conveyed by the inclusion of a tiny figure. The show also includes a sketch, Double Self-Portrait, in which the long-faced, mustached and bearded artist gazes intently out of the page, with and without his hat.
Avery said that Gifford, who loved fishing, married just before his death and maintained a studio on Tenth Street in New York City, left a legacy of $70,000, which spoke to his success.
Jacks said that Phase Two of the Thomas Cole Site restoration will consist of decorating the upstairs. In the meantime, Greene County has received grant money to construct a sidewalk on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge that will enable visitors to walk from the Cole House to Hudson and Frederic Church’s home and studio at Olana. The “Skywalk” should be completed by the end of this year. The original Cole farm of 110 acres bordered the Hudson River, which is close by, and there are plans to extend the bridge walkway to the Cole site.
Thanks to the work of early preservationists, who created the Catskill Forest Preserve, many of the scenes depicted by Cole and other Hudson River School painters have been preserved. The Hudson River Art Trail (www.hudsonriverschool.org) enables motorists to drive or walk to some of these sites, thereby experiencing for themselves the beauty and the sublimity that so inspired the landscape painters of the mid-19th century.
Located at 218 Spring Street in Catskill, the Thomas Cole Historic Site and “Sanford Gifford in the Catskills” are open from now through October 29, Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission cost $14, $12 for seniors 65+ and students with ID; kids under 16 get in free. Guided tours are available; check the website at www.thomascole.org for times and reservations or call (518) 943-7465.
“Sanford Gifford in the Catskills,” Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $14/$12, Thomas Cole Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill; (518) 943-7465, www.thomascole.org.